Fight Night Round 3 proved to be a great early example of the graphical prowess of the current generation of consoles. The 2006 release had well-conceived control that let new players pick up the strategy of boxing, and on top of that it looked terrific. Round 4 picks up where that game left off, offering better graphics, a similar control scheme, and a lot of underlying differences that might not seem immediately apparent, but actually add meaningful depth to boxer selection and fighting styles.
The big difference with Round 4 is that fighter heights and reach are now a factor. When you pick the taller guys with the longer reach, you'll do better if you can keep the fight at arm's length, hammering away with jabs and straights while the (hopefully) shorter fighter can't even effectively retaliate. But those shorter fighters can be way more explosive once they do manage to get inside, with hooks and uppercuts that are built to knock dudes down. At the same time, the taller, outside fighters don't excel at closer ranges. So in these fights where there's a meaningful difference in height, those stylistic differences sort of dictate the pace of the fight.
A big part of the gameplay in Fight Night now focuses on counterpunching. Sure, your normal shots do damage when they land, and you can swirl the right stick around in different ways to throw all sorts of combinations, but you're going to need to figure out the defensive actions if you want to do well at higher difficulty levels or against skilled human opposition. You can block high or low and sway around in different directions to dodge punches. The catch is that you want to time those actions just right, blocking or dodging at the last second. When you do, you set yourself up to land a counterpunch, which is more effective than your standard punches. The game feels like it sort of slows down for a second when a counterpunch is possible, and when you land one, there's a bright flash as it hits. Considering that the timing windows for both setting up and landing a counterpunch can be sort of tight, slowing it down makes total sense from a gameplay perspective. But in a game that feels mostly focused on realism, the system feels a bit more "gamey" than you might expect.
Outside the ring, Fight Night Round 4 starts to struggle a bit. Aside from "fight now," which is the game's exhibition fight mode where you just set up matches and go, there's a career mode, called Legacy. The core idea is that you want to set up your created boxer's legacy and retire as the Greatest of All Time, and to do that you'll need to play through your fighter's career and complete certain tasks. The career mode is needlessly wrapped in layers and layers of unnecessary menus, like an e-mail inbox that literally never tells you anything of any value. Or a calendar that forces you to simulate the days leading up to your fight, even if nothing that matters to your fighter actually happens on those days. A simple screen that lets you select your next opponent and choose how many training sessions you want before your next fight (with the trade-off being that the more time you spend fighting, the closer you get to getting old and needing to retire) could have streamlined this process without losing anything meaningful along the way. In this mode you'll also have the option to play a few training minigames. If you choose to auto-train, you only get 50 percent of the maximum benefit you could get by acing the training session. I did so horribly at my first few sessions that I decided to auto-train for the rest of my career. That decision never came back to haunt me.
Fight Night Round 4 has 48 licensed fighters in it, many of which come from the annals of boxing history. I mean, it's awesome that Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson are in the game and on the cover, but it's kind of a sad commentary on the state of boxing that these great, long-retired fighters are still the most recognizable faces in the sport. Even the commentary in the game makes a reference to how boxing used to be a major sport. But with the game's great create-a-boxer features, you can fill out the game's roster however you see fit.
While you can go through the standard process of adjusting sliders to move brows and tilt noses, the game also supports photo imports, both from the cameras on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, as well as via EA's website, where you can simply upload much better, higher resolution photos. From there, the game seamlessly downloads the photos, you adjust a few markers to point out the features of the face you're importing, and it generates a head. While it can go wrong in several ridiculous ways, when it gets it right, the head importing feature is kind of scary. Beyond the faces, you can also place your created fighters into different weight classes, select from different fighting and blocking styles, tweak your height or your reach, and place points into multiple attributes, such as right arm strength or stamina.
While you can certainly spend a lot of time fighting against the various levels of AI in the quick fight or career modes, this is a boxing game. It almost goes without saying that you'll enjoy it more if you're playing against another person. Naturally, the exhibition fight mode lets you square off locally. But the game also has an online component to it. It offers the standard ranked and unranked fights, but there's also a cool mode that revolves around the created fighters and has separate leaderboards, complete with a champion. This mode, called World Championship, levels the stats across the different created fighters and lets you duke it out, work your way up the rankings, and hopefully challenge for the belt.
Presentation-wise, the game's got great graphics. The crowds in the larger arenas, specifically, look great. Faces deform in a slow-motion replay that shows off punches that make fighters fall down. And punches generally look like they're doing damage and glancing off of blocking fighters properly. The audio of the fights is great, and the commentary is solid, at least at first. The duo on commentary have plenty of great stories about the real-life fighters in the game, but those only come up outside of career mode. Created fighters don't have any such stories, so the guys run through some various anecdotes. You'll hear every single one of those after 10 or 20 fights in career mode, which makes the commentary kind of annoying. Also, it's worth noting that you can import your own music and use it for menus and boxer entrances on the Xbox 360, but you'll have to disable the existing music entirely to use any external music, which seems a little weird. If you want to just import one track for your fighter, it seems like you're totally out of luck.
Some of the things surrounding the boxing in Fight Night Round 4 are kind of annoying, especially if you're planning on primarily playing the game by yourself. But the fighting itself is fantastic and the online feels sharp enough to substitute for local opposition. Provided you haven't completely shifted any love you might have for boxing over to mixed martial arts already, you'll probably love it.